The Best Bread Pudding Nora Ephron Ever Ate: Heartburn, Cooked
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‘The desire to get married – which I regret to say, I believe is fundamental and primal in women – is followed almost immediately by an equally fundamental and primal urge, which is to be single again.’
Rachel Samstat’s first husband kept his dead hamster’s corpse in the freezer and laid hamster-size wreaths of flowers at its little frozen feet. Rachel might have coped with that if he hadn’t also claimed to be allergic to onions and, as everyone knows, you just can’t cook without onions. Rachel’s a TV cook and a successful food writer so her second husband, Mark, a smooth-taking charmer, fellow foodie and syndicated columnist, seems like a much better fit.
Rachel and Mark move to Washington D.C., sink their collective savings into a doer-upper and have a baby. Rachel misses New York, misses the bagels and the range of bean-sprouts, misses conversations that don’t revolve around politics. Still, it’s a good life and Rachel is happy in it, right up to the moment when, seven months into her second pregnancy, she discovers that Mark is having an affair with an exceptionally tall woman called Thelma Rice.
She leaves him, of course, and takes refuge in her Dad’s New York apartment while she figures out what she wants.
‘I want him back...I want him back so I can yell at him and tell him he’s a schmuck.’ I paused. ‘And I want him to stop seeing her. I want him to say he never really loved her. I want him to say he must have been crazy. I want her to die. I want him to die too...I want him back dead.’
The plot unfolds through a series of highly personal vignettes narrated by the heartsick Rachel. She describes to us how she met Mark, how her parents made her who she is, how childbirth changed her, how to make toasted almonds...it all just ebbs and flows like a long afternoon chatting with your best friend. Assuming your best friend is hilarious.
Rachel is one of those people who can’t help talking about food. She remembers people by what they taught her to cook or, in the case of the young man who thought it was a good idea to put sour cream into scrambled eggs, chooses not to remember them at all. She cooks to show people how much she loves them, cooks to console herself when they don’t love her back and rates people according to what they cook.
‘A carrot cake I’d made that had too much pineapple in it was still awfully good compared to Thelma’s desserts.’
The recipes, for cheesecake, Key lime pie and sorrel soup, to name just a few, are scattered through the narrative as Ephron pauses, mid-sketch as it were, to impart the culinary information. But that’s how it happens in real life, how you call on your girlfriend to console her on her break-up and come away with a recipe for Welsh Rarebit.
Nora Ephron is best remembered as the screen writer of romantic comedy classics When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and the wonderful Julie and Julia. Her books, however, display greater depth and a harder edge than her movies.
Although she identified herself as a Jewish woman, Ephron was not religious. ‘You can never have too much butter,’ she once said, '-that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it.’
Ephron worked briefly as an intern in J.F. Kennedy’s White House and as a mail girl at Newsweek magazine at a time when they refused to hire women writers. Her first writing job was at the New York Post where she wrote, with insight and acerbic wit, about food, New York, and sex, in that order.
Heartburn, Ephron’s first novel, was first published in 1983. In her introduction to this edition, written two decades later, Ephron admitted that the book was, as had long been claimed, a thinly-veiled autobiography. Her second marriage ended, she says, exactly the way the one in Heartburn does, when she discovered that her husband, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, was having an affair with an unbelievably tall person.
‘In the book, I thinly disguised myself by making myself considerably more composed than I was at the time.’
Bernstein, she thinly disguised by giving him a black beard with a little white stripe in it, ‘just like a skunk is what you are thinking, and you’re right.’ Mark Feldman is described in the book as ‘capable of having sex with a Venetian blind,’ a characterisation which led Bernstein to threaten a lawsuit. Ephron was fascinated by her ex-husband’s misplaced sense of outrage. ‘He cheated on me,’ she wrote, ‘and then got to behave as if he was the one who had been wronged because I wrote about it!’
Ephron knew the moment her marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if she could just stop crying.
‘One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me so hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.’
The 1986 movie adaptation went further to heal the wound.
‘I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,’ said the woman scorned, 'If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl Streep to play you. You will feel much better.’
Ephron had the ability to capture the normality of extraordinary women, from Karen Silkwood to Julia Child, and to make the normal heartaches of any woman’s life seem extraordinarily funny.
Following her death in 2012 at the age of 71, celebrity friends including Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler issued statements about how much they would miss this woman’s wit and wisdom, her cooking and her generosity with recipes and, perhaps most of all, her sparkling dinner party repartee. Hardly surprising given that this was the woman who knew the identity of Deep Throat long before the rest of America.
Ephron’s roman a clef is wise and wise-cracking. Her dead pan delivery is liable to induce snorts of uncontrollable mirth. But, behind the punch lines and the toasted almonds, it’s all heart-achingly, wretchedly sad. It’s real life, with a pinch of salt. Nigella Lawson claims Heartburn as one of her all-time favourite books. It's easy to see why.
Rachel and Mark are best friends, foodie friends, with Arthur and Julie. Rachel is pretty sure that Arthur and Julie will, ‘go over there and beat some sense into Mark.’
Mark, Rachel is convinced, might be willing to give her up and might even forgo the delights of her unbeatable vinaigrette, but he would never give up on their foursome. Thelma Rice would never fit into a friendship with Arthur and Julie. She’s too tall for one thing, Arthur and Julie could never match her stride, and most insurmountably, Thelma Rice, ironically, doesn’t care about food.
The foodie foursome, on the other hand, had a friendship that was a ‘shrine to food.’
‘We had driven miles to find the world’s creamiest cheesecake and the world’s largest pistachio nut and the world’s sweetest corn on the cob...Once, in New Orleans, we all went to Mosca’s for dinner and we ate marinated crab, baked oysters, barbecued shrimp, spaghetti bordelaise, chicken with garlic, sausage with potatoes, and on the way back to town, a dozen oysters each at the Acme and beignets and coffee with chicory on the wharf. Then Arthur said, “let’s go to Chez Helene for the bread pudding,” and we did and we each had two.’
The owner of Chez Helene gave them the recipe as they left. Who could possibly resist something Nora Ephron describes as the best bread pudding she had ever eaten?
‘It tastes like caramelized mush.’
For the Bread Pudding:
2 sticks (8oz/225g) butter
2 cups (12oz/300g) sugar
2½ cups (1¼pints/715mls) milk
13oz can of evaporated milk
2 Tbsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp nutmeg (this seemed to me a little excessive but, you know, suit yourself)
1 cup (6oz/150g) raisins
A loaf of bread, in chunks (‘any bread will do, the worse the better’)
For the accompanying Hard Sauce:
1 cup (150g) powdered (icing) sugar
¼ cup (55g) butter
1 Tbsp brandy, bourbon or rum
To Make the Bread Pudding:
1. Cream the butter and sugar together.
2. Add the vanilla and nutmeg, followed by the milk and then the evaporated milk, mixing well.
3. Add the bread and raisins and stir to combine.
4. Pour this sloppy wet mixture into a deep, well-buttered casserole. Bake at 350F (175˚C) for 50 minutes. Stir the pudding in the dish –this is the crucial step – and bake for a further 30 minutes until the pudding is golden and crunchy on top. I should add that Ephron suggests a full two hours baking but I prefer bread pudding with a soft centre. Bake it to whatever consistency you like best.
To Make the Hard Sauce:
‘Serve with hard sauce,’ was a mystery to me until I discovered that hard sauce is simply what we Irish call Brandy Butter and usually confine to eating with mince pies at Christmas.
Cream the butter and icing sugar together until light and fluffy. Stir in the brandy (or rum or bourbon). Put the sauce in the fridge to firm up until the pudding is ready.
Eat the pudding as Ephron recommends, warm with the hard sauce melting lasciviously through the layers, or, as I like it, cold with coffee for breakfast. Either way, you're in for a treat.